Sitting with Max von Essen at the Knickerbocker Hotel’s St. Cloud’s Rooftop, it is easy to see why the actor has had such longevity on Broadway: with his open heart and leading man charisma, he is immediately captivating, drawing listeners in a way that can only come from a life on the stage. It’s that same amiability combined with honest storytelling that has garnered the actor a Tony nomination for his work in An American in Paris and led to his present role as Gleb in Anastasia.
Playbill caught up with von Essen about his experience in succeeding Ramin Karimloo and bringing the show’s menacing Soviet officer to life eight times a week.
You’re currently back on Broadway in Anastasia—how has it been so far?
It’s been amazing! I stepped into the show and was like, “Whoa, this is way more than I ever dreamed!” I love the score. I love the character so much. It’s such a treat, way more than I ever expected!
What is it like jumping onto a train that's already moving?
There are different challenges in replacing someone and different challenges in starting something from scratch. I only had two weeks and there were a lot of things to learn. Everything is set, from “stand here” to “move on this phrase.” I’m stepping into something that already exists. But I love Darko Tresnjak’s direction. I’m fine with the things that I have to do because they make sense to me.
But they have also given me full freedom to put my own stamp on it. They have fully allowed me to explore the character in new ways. I’ve found a lot to play with that I love. I find him super complex and frightening and yet emotional.
When you have a structure that is already there but freedom to play and explore, how did you find your own version of the character?
I just sort of… did it. I like the material and what [playwright] Terrence McNally has done with the role so much. Overall, it’s a really hopeful, romantic musical but at its core, there are some deep dark, complex issues that we’re dealing with. I’ve found that by just singing the material and doing the scenes, finding my own Gleb just happens.
Is that how you typically approach character building, by bringing yourself to the information that is already in the material?
For every character, I always start with what I can relate to, what I can bring of my life and experience. Very often, you’re not given that much time, especially when you’re [stepping into a role] so what of my personality, my history, my relationships can I apply to Gleb? From there, I have to do my research on the period, the military, and on the Romanov family. But step one is always what connects me to this character.
And how has it been finding your connection to Anastasia vocally?
At first, I was really nervous. But it’s always so cool to be given a role and then be really scared of it. It’s like, “I’m so thrilled I got it but now I have to do it!” I love singing those songs and I was able to do it in the audition with adrenaline, but now I have to sing it eight times a week. It was really tough. But in the second month, I hit a groove where it became muscle memory and then you can start taking more chances and trying new things.
Singing these songs is the highlight of the show for me. Everything started for me from music as a kid. It is my first love. From playing piano to singing, no matter what I do, I can’t help but start things from how they sound musically. [Singing the music] is a huge challenge but when you’re feeling good, you feel like you’re flying. Even when if it’s a little bit more of a struggle, [singing the score] is a thrill. I am really lucky—there are some killer moments in the show for Gleb vocally!
Now that you’ve hit your groove, are there things that you’re eager to keep exploring in the role?
I don’t really plan [my exploration]. Normally that just happens naturally. If I ever find that I’m slightly having a tough show or I’m in a place where I’m feeling stuck, in an early scene I specifically make one new choice. I come into the scene knowing I’m going to make one new choice and it sets off a whole domino effect during the show. if you’re open to it, new things happen. That reinvigorates me and reinvigorates the people I’m involved with in the scene.
As it goes on, I do get more pulled in, and it is so fun to keep discovering things. I deal the most with Christy Altomare, who is such an open, beating heart of a person. Whatever you give her she gives it right back. I wouldn’t say that we veer too much from performance to performance, but it always feels alive, like we’re in the moment. We’re very much in it and fully connected.
I have to say this is one of my favorite roles that I have ever played. It wasn’t until I got my hands on it and started breaking down the script, and really working on the songs that I realized how rewarding the role is. It’s one thing to see a performance and another thing to do it and take it on as your own. Then you go, “Wow, this is harder than I thought.” Now, I’m taking ownership of it, and I’m really proud of what I’m doing!
Go Inside Max von Essen's feature photoshoot below: